Campus police at the University of Kansas convinced a local prosecutor and a judge to OK a search warrant to discover the identity of a commenter on the Web site of the Lawrence Journal-World last month, but the publisher’s objection stopped the search from taking place. (Apparently the officer got bored and left without conducting the search as the paper’s lawyer talked to the district attorney about the appropriateness of the search.)
As so often is the case in these incidents, it looks like the officials who wanted the search just didn’t think it through, not realizing that a more appropriate means would be a subpoena, which can be challenged in court and more narrowly tailored if it goes too far.
Officials also surely didn’t realize that their actions ran afoul of the federal Privacy Protection Act, a statute designed to protect the news media from such searches. Searches of a newsroom’s computers surely offend the First Amendment — the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision holding otherwise notwithstanding (which led Congress to pass the PPA) — because of the intrusiveness and potential to implicate confidential newsgathering information not related to the matter at hand.